Charles Darwin first visited an atoll during his Beagle voyage in 1842. He reasoned, correctly, that these staggeringly beautiful rings of coral, containing a lagoon in the centre, somewhat protected from the surrounding sea, were formed by the rise and eventual collapse of marine volcanoes that were then overrun by opportunistic organisms. From a volcano’s death, life takes hold.

Now, thanks to the emergence of a new volcanic island off the Japanese coast, scientists can document one of these life-hosting natural laboratories from its birth. Back in 2013, a massive underwater eruption caused a tiny island to thrust its way out of the sea, close to a bigger neighbour called Nishinoshima (or “western island”), about 1,000 kilometres south of Tokyo. Before long, the small speck rose enough above the waters to merge with its big sister, forming a landmass just over a kilometre across. Continuing volcanic eruptions have propelled the joined islands to a height of 110m above sea level, and the new Nishinoshima covered an area about the size of 230 football fields at the end of last year.

Atarashii Shima island map_2015_05_20

As I write this, the eruptions continue, spewing more molten rock onto fresh terrain, constantly increasing the size of this tiny castle in the sea. For volcanologists and biologists alike, this is great news: it's the perfect recipe for the start of life in the form of primitive bacterial and floral ecosystems.

Volcanic land is fertile. Cooled, crumbly, volcanic soil nurtures a range of floral life forms. Mount Etna, Europe's tallest active volcano, is surrounded by olive groves. Forests stretch for miles and miles around the base of the much-revered Mount Fuji. And for Nishinoshima, the much-needed ingredients for life to germinate will arrive ... when the birds do. Avian visitors, and their (potentially seed-carrying) poop, vomit, corpses and regurgitated food, will bring additional organic material to the island, complete with its accompanying bacteria. 

“I think lichen will be the first, if the old Nishinoshima is covered completely by the new lava,” predicts Dr Kazuto Kawakami, an ornithologist at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute. 

Nishinoshima Last Year _2015_05_22
The island around six months after it broke the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Image: NASA
Island Coast Guard 2015 05 22
Eruptions on the island are continuing. Image: Japan Coast Guard
Coast Guard Island Zoomed Out 2015 05 22
For now, the island can only be viewed from the air. Image: Japan Coast Guard

For now at least, the continuing eruptions make it too dangerous for scientists to set foot on the island. “The Japanese Coast Guard have restricted access to the island,” explains Dr Kawakami. “Last December, a TV station filmed using a UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or drone], and volcanologists and myself worked cooperatively to monitor the status of the island.”

And while the volcanologists are gazing at the ever-growing summit, biologists are looking forward to treading carefully across this new laboratory, and being able to scoop up samples and observe life naturally take its course with almost no human interference. 

Soon, the moment will arrive when they can step onto this new life-bearing land. Darwin would have loved it.

Image: Geoff Livingston, Flickr